Serendipity: On a different wavelength

PERCY SPENCER grew up a poor, uneducated farmboy in Howland, Maine. Orphaned at the age of two, he was brought up by his uncle and aunt, who managed to arrange a job for him in a local paper mill. When the mill was electrified in 1910, the young Percy showed such enthusiasm for the newfangled source of energy and learned so much about it that he was promoted to the job of electrician. This was the start of a meteoric rise, and by the end of the Second World War he was a senior researcher at the Raytheon Corporation, helping to develop radar technology.

One day in 1946, he was experimenting with a magnetron, an electronic device that emits microwaves. While sitting next to the magnetron, Spencer felt a warm, moist sensation in his pocket - a peanut snack bar had melted. Immediately, he realised that microwaves might have the potential to cook food. He sent for some popcorn kernels, placed them next to the magnetron, and then watched as they popped. The next day he experimented with an egg, which began to quiver as the heat and pressure built up inside. When a colleague leant forward to take a closer look, there was an explosion, and he literally ended up with egg on his face. The first commercial microwave oven was sold just one year later.

Microwaves have continued to have a serendipitous history, as illustrated by the story of the British engineer Bill Lucas, who made the fortuitous mistake of letting his tea go cold. He popped his cup in the microwave, with cat-astrophic results. Sparks danced wildly around the cup, because it had a gold rim. As most people know, you should never put metal in a microwave oven, since the sparking can be dangerous to the user and damaging to the oven.

Lucas worked at The Welding Institute near Cambridge, and wondered if the sparks that he had witnessed could be harnessed for welding. Metal effectively focuses microwaves, just as a glass lens focuses light, and it was not long before he had constructed a microwave welding machine. The advantage of his prototype was the machine's efficiency, because just as microwave cookers use less energy than conventional cookers, microwave welding seems to use less energy than conventional welding.

I first came across Bill Lucas when he appeared on Tomorrow's World back in 1992, successfully demonstrating his prototype microwave welder live in the studio. Contrary to the popular myth, his invention did not sink without trace, but has since gone from strength to strength. When I spoke to Bill last week, he told me that a German company, Widos, is now manufacturing and selling microwave welding systems.

Simon Singh is the author of 'The Code Book - the Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography', Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory